Andrew Arbuckle: Make MPs pick fruit to see who is unskilled

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I heard them ­coming minutes before they came over the horizon. But I had been expecting them as I had tested the odd pea pod as a diversion during my regular walk.

My ­tasting was no more than the pea equivalent of Robert Burns’ description in defending his mouse’s ­consumption as a “daimen icker in a thrave”* but I knew from my extremely small-scale sampling the pea vining operation could not be far off.

Harvesting is far from an unskilled job, says Andrew Arbuckle. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Soon they were lumbering around the field, ­gobbling up all before them then spewing the harvested peas into trailers before the crop was hurried off to the freezing factory. It was a military operation with hundreds – no thousands – of horsepower and dozens of people working together.

• READ MORE: Farming news

They came on Saturday afternoon and with no ­concession for the time of day, or day of the week, they continued through the night.

I fell asleep thinking of the teamwork required by those involved to bring this simple straightforward vegetable to the table where it takes its place alongside the beef, lamb, chicken or whatever.

Who decides who is skilled and who is not?

There were the highly skilled viner operators who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of machinery as well as having to ensure they successfully harvest one of the most difficult crops around.

Then the tractor drivers who, like their counterparts have been driving grain off combines for the past month or more, and have to ensure they are in harmony with the harvesters as they disgorge their loads. Any misjudgement can easily result in the driver ending up under a deluge of peas.

The lorry drivers with their HGV certificates then have to get their loads to the factory on time where a skilled workforce hand-pick all the little bits of pods that fussy people do not like in their frozen packets of peas.

Every link in that labour chain plays its part in ­delivering the peas to the freezer cabinet. Each link has its own skills and abilities and if any one part of that chain is missing the whole effort collapses.

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This teamwork is all the more relevant when the potential consequences of the leaked UK government document on immigration is considered. The thrust of the draft document states skilled migrant labour will continue to be welcome while unskilled labour will find the country closed.

Who decides who is skilled and who is not? I have no doubt the person driving the machinery worth hundreds of thousands of pounds will be placed into the skilled category. But there is an argument that the pea pod picker on the factory line should also be considered in the same category.

If it were otherwise, then a machine might do it but it takes the intelligence of a human being to differentiate what should go in the packet and what should be turfed out.

Without the factory worker, the rest of the pea harvesting operation will not work. It would most likely lead to the exporting of the whole caboodle to some Eastern European country to the detriment of this country’s economy.

The same arguments on skilled labour apply to soft fruit pickers and vegetable harvesters. If their job is unskilled, why is there not a machine to decide which strawberries go in the punnet and which head of broccoli to cut?

Why do those politicians who favour such divisive, and frankly bonkers, ­policies not come out to the harvest fields and find out for themselves just how skilled these jobs are – not just for a quick photo opportunity but for a full shift so that their backs ache and they have to count their fingers to ensure they have not accidentally sliced off a digit in their misplaced attempts to demonstrate harvesting is an unskilled job.

It will also be interesting to see into what category dairy workers and pig and poultry men and women are classified. Anyone who works with livestock today requires high skill levels but on which side of the line will the politicians decide their future?

Finally, am I the only one to see the illogicality in the UK government planning to keep unskilled jobs for UK workers but not for others? What comment is that on our educational and training systems and what comment is that on a government for the few?

*An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves.

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